NFL Judging Prospects' Character

If flashing blue lights, handcuffs, jail cells, drugs, violence and arrogance define a football player's past, then it's likely to affect his future with ramifications beyond the justice system. The NFL is watching and judging.

Beating up his girlfriend, using or selling drugs, or brandishing a gun can cost a draft prospect millions of dollars.

In their search for character over characters, teams have to make multiple subjective calls to determine whether a player is a troubled young man who might grow into a responsible adult or a recalcitrant thug who’s unlikely to change his spots.

“For me, character is critical,” said Baltimore Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta, who operates as general manager Ozzie Newsome’s top draft advisor.

“I’m always concerned. We get a lot of information from different outlets about players’ backgrounds and families or if they’ve been arrested. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll just look at Ozzie and I’ll say, ‘Ozzie, do we really want to deal with this guy?’ and he’ll say, ‘No, take him down.’

“Character has become a bigger issue every year. In most cases, guys that we actually take off the board end up screwing up. I see the names of the different players getting in trouble around the league and I say, ‘Ozzie, they don’t change.’ We like to think that they may change, but in most cases they don’t.”

Recognizing personality flaws or gauging the sincerity of an apology from a usually well-coached athlete requires more than extensive security background checks, the Wonderlic intelligence and logic exam or consulting a psychologist. It usually involves relying on gut instincts and experience to decide whether someone has truly learned their lesson or is merely promising to clean up their act just to play in the NFL.

Ravens coach Brian Billick likes to tell the story of an interview at the scouting combine with a gifted player with a troubled background. "I'm sitting across from this kid and it's late and we're both tired, and I just decide to get right to the point,” Billick said. “So I said, 'Let's cut to the chase, are you a thug or are you just stupid?' The kid says, 'Are those the only choices?' That was all I needed to hear."

Billick said the unnamed player wound up being drafted high and has done well in the NFL.

Will Virginia Tech quarterback Marcus Vick, the troubled younger brother of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, have a similar fate?

Vick was arrested, but not convicted, of having sex with a 15-year old girl. He was convicted of giving alcohol to three underage girls. He pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana and reckless driving. He was permanently dismissed from the Hokies’ football program after stomping on the calf of Louisville defensive end Elvis Dumervil. He lied about apologizing to Dumervil.

Vick once flipped off the West Virginia fans and elbowed a coach in the back of his head. He was charged with brandishing a loaded gun in a McDonald’s parking lot after being kicked off the team.

Can the NFL trust him?

“I’m just trying to show the world I’m not the person that some people make me out to be, some kind of bad guy like the villain,” Vick said. “I wasn’t raised that way. Anybody that really knows me knows that.”

The Ravens are interested in USC offensive tackle Winston Justice, who was suspended for the entire 2004 season for pointing a toy gun at a student. He pleaded no contest the previous year to solicitation of prostitution in his hometown of Long Beach, Calif and received three years of probation.

Contrite and apologetic about the incidents, Justice seems to have done some damage control. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the 6-foot-6, 320-pounder is capable of a 39-inch vertical leap, 38 repetitions of 225 pounds and 5.0 speed in the 40-yard dash.

“I'm always going to be sorry about it, but it’s in the past," Justice said. "I'm trying to live day by day to show people that I am a good-character guy."

In the case of Florida State linebacker A.J. Nicholson, he was accused of sexual assault of a 19-year old girl at the team hotel prior to the Orange Bowl. The charge was dropped and Nicholson was remorseful when asked about the incident.

"I made a mistake," Nicholson said. "I'm deeply sorry that I let my team down. I was wrong to ask her to leave. That made her mad and that's why she said what she said. It won't ever happen again." However, it wasn’t his first brush with the law. Nicholson was charged with two separate alcohol-related offenses within a one-year span leading up to his senior season in 2005.

One incident involved him resisting arrest after police tried to kick him out of a Tallahassee, Fla., night club for disorderly conduct and drinking violations. The police had to subdue him with a Taser gun. “I probably wouldn’t draft him,” DeCosta said. “He’s not a guy that would be of great interest to the Ravens.”

Attitude can affect a player’s draft stock, too. Virginia Tech cornerback Jimmy Williams has been criticized by some scouts, who claimed he had an aloof, arrogant attitude during interviews. “Every team has a different interpretation of a player,” DeCosta said. “We interviewed Jimmy Williams and he was fine. I didn’t have any problems with him.”

LSU defensive tackle Claude Wroten would seem to fall into the danger category for the Ravens even though he’s immensely gifted and the team could use a good interior lineman.

Wroten would likely have been drafted in the first round if not for his felony arrest in January for marijuana possession with intent to distribute. The charge was ultimately dropped because of a technicality, but Wroten was kicked out of the Senior Bowl because of the incident and teams are highly concerned about investing a high draft pick and big money in him. He flunked a drug test for marijuana at the scouting combine and has acknowledged failing tests during his junior year.

“I think Wroten gives everybody pause,” DeCosta said. “The guy was arrested for possession and possible trafficking charges. It’s a concern. He was probably a top 20 pick and now he’s in the second, third or fourth round area depending on a team’s threshold for what they want to deal with.” The Ravens have taken risks on character in the past, but avoided a major one during their first draft in 1996 when they passed on Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips because of his history of domestic violence and drafted UCLA offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden with the fourth overall selection.

The squeaky-clean Ogden is considered a lock for the Hall of Fame. Phillips has constantly been in trouble and is out of the NFL.

The Ravens have had several players involved in high-profile legal turmoil, including: linebacker Ray Lewis (murder charges dropped, convicted of obstruction of justice) and running back Jamal Lewis (pleaded guilty in cocaine conspiracy case, served four months in prison).

“I don’t think you judge a person on one mistake,” Newsome said. “I’m a firm believer that people can make a mistake and recover from it and become a very good citizen. We’ve seen that and stood by players who have.

“Character is when a person continuously makes mistakes or they continually do something wrong. Those are the players that I say, ‘No, they are not changing and can’t be turned around.’”


TROUBLED YOUTH?

Here’s a look at college prospects with a history of off-field issues or attitude problems that could affect their stock in the NFL draft.

LSU DT Claude Wroten: Felony arrest for marijuana possession with intent to distribute dismissed on a technicality, but was kicked out of the Senior Bowl for the incident. Acknowledged a history of failed drug tests for marijuana usage.

Virginia Tech QB Marcus Vick: Arrested for brandishing a firearm; stomped on leg of a Louisville defender, convicted of contributing to delinquency of a minor, charged with reckless driving and marijuana possession and driving while license revoked.

Florida State LB Ernie Sims: Domestic violence arrest involving his live-in girlfriend, pleaded no contest to reduced charge of disorderly conduct

USC OT Winston Justice: Pleaded no contest to solicitation of prostitution, suspended for an entire season in 2004 for exhibiting a replica firearm and received three years of probation.

Florida State DT Brodrick Bunkley: Pleaded no contest to stealing a video game, received probation.

Virginia Tech cornerback Jimmy Williams: Some teams complained that he was arrogant at the scouting combine.

Florida State LB A.J. Nicholson:
Accused of sexual assault, but no charges were filed. Charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and drinking violations with police subduing him with a Taser gun.

USC RB Lendale White: Overweight, injured and thought to be lazy.

USC QB Matt Leinart: Scouts wonder if he's too enamored of the Hollywood scene.

Georgia TE Leonard Pope:
Suspended for violating team rules.

Georgia OG Max Jean-Gilles: Questions about conditioning, dedication.

Central Florida WR Brandon Marshall:
Arrested for trespassing and resisting arrest at a Denny’s restaurant

Oklahoma DT Dusty Dvoracek: Admitted alcoholic has cleaned up his act since undergoing counseling and treatment after a series of alcohol-related bar fights.

Georgia CB Demario Minter:
Arrested for marijuana possession, received probation and community service.

Penn State CB Anwar Phillips: Accused of sexual assault and indecent aggravated assault by a female student. Expelled for two semesters, but was acquitted by a jury.


Aaron Wilson covers the Ravens for Ravens Insider and the Carroll County Times.

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